With its thunderous riffs, piercing vocals, driving grooves and all too memorable licks, Back in Black has rock anthem after rock anthem engraved throughout. Although it follows the same formulaic method as their previous records, the album managed to revitalise rock and roll forever, elevating the band to new commercial heights at a crucial point in their career.
After the breakthrough release of Highway to Hell only a year prior, it looked like AC/DC were on an upwards trajectory, winning the hearts of fans and storming album charts around the world. Shortly after its release, however, tragedy struck. The group’s charismatic front man, Bon Scott, heartbreakingly died from asphyxia caused by alcohol poisoning.
The loss of Bon Scott had left AC/DC with a deep wound, ultimately pushing them to consider ending it all. With these terrible circumstances looming, it wouldn’t be a travesty if AC/DC packed it all up and called it a day – instead, the group kept on chugging and delivered what many believe to their best effort ever, and certainly one of rock’s all time greatest albums.
After some encouraging words from Scott’s parents to carry on, and myriad failed auditions, AC/DC reached out to a frontman that Bon himself had highly regarded: 32-year-old Brian Johnson of the English band Geordie. Upon being called in for an audition, Johnson delivered an astounding rendition of Tina Turner’s ‘Nutbush City Limits’ to the delight of the Young brothers, and as they say, the rest was history.
Despite concerns from their fanbase, the transition of the band’s lead singers was ultimately seamless. Unlike other singers joining a pre-existing band, Johnson didn’t attempt to hijack or change their trajectory. Instead, he knew his place. And like the other members, he did his part to make the best rock and roll they possibly could. Even with all this change, Scott’s influence still loomed large; some new songs had already taken shape while the legendary frontman was still alive. The very essence of the album still felt like Bon was around, and this was something the original members weren’t willing to change.
Regrouping to the Bahamas with producer Mutt Lange, AC/DC bunkered down to beat a seven-week turnaround imposed on them by their label. Fuelled by the desire to create a profound effort to honour Scott’s memory and double down on their own prowess, Lange and AC/DC worked in the studio persistently, and under extraordinary circumstances, miraculously put together one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Like its namesake, the album’s opener ‘Hells Bells’ begins with a haunting bell, alluding to the band coming out of a dark place, one of memorial and mourning. Enveloping listeners with a sombre mood, Angus Young’s entrancing riff and Phil Rudd’s drumming enters in perfectly. The power of Brian Johnson’s voice mesmerises audiences. With everything so tightly knit, this was the opener of all openers. If anyone had ever doubted, AccaDacca were back.
On ‘Shoot to Thrill’, an upbeat riff and faster tempo takes audiences out of the gloomy mood completely – Johnson’s electrifying voice now more controlled, but equally as loud: ‘I shoot to thrill, and I’m ready to kill.’ The ending sees a floaty riff, tight drumming and some groovy bass, all before an uproar of rock crescendo comes crashing down.
A product of its own era, the middle section of Back In Black is peppered with more than a few questionable lyrics about sexuality, and also puts forth some rather damning lyrics about women. Although the music itself is at the same level of excellence as the previous songs, many critics have questioned the lyrical content and its appropriateness in retrospect, and honestly, we can’t blame them.
Regardless of this, AC/DC carry on with similar themes. ‘Have A Drink On Me’, follows the band’s same harrowing lyricism. Seemingly unfitting due to the way Bon Scott passed, the song sits perfectly with the band’s wit and dark sense of humour. The title track is a highlight of the album. Consisting of more intricate lyricism: ‘yes I’m let loose, from the noose’, and ‘forget the hearse, cause I never die, I got nine lives’. Angus and Malcolm’s rhythm and lead parts cleverly interweave, resulting in one of the most recognisable guitar riffs of all time. Cliff Williams’ bass is dominant, while Paul Rudd’s drumming is perfectly timed, making a heavy impact.
Back in Black not only marks the commercial peak of a legendary outfit: it is also a fitting tribute to a frontman who helped the band reach grand heights. Without Bon Scott, AC/DC would not be where they are now, let alone in a position to create their magnum opus.
The reason they resonate with their listeners is that they’re a no-nonsense type of band. You either love them or you hate them; they couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Their brutal, catchy riffs pull listeners in, captivating them into feeling like they belong to something important. Accadacca make anthems: anthems for the hard-working, the battlers, the ordinary person that just wants a go. For many, Back in Black encapsulates all of this, cementing AC/DC as rock and roll royalty who changed the genre forever.
While you’re here – revisit the legacy of Malcolm Young with this tribute to the steady right hand of AC/DC.